to thine own self be true

Managing self-care in a time of crisis

As we navigate our way through the last few weeks of 2021 I am reminded of that wonderful quote from Hamlet - To thine own self be true. A friend sent it to me many years ago as a pick me up, and it rings in my ears now as I hear of people facing incredible hardships and having their personal beliefs not only challenged but ridiculed. I feel the need to reach out to remind us all that we remain the most important person in our own lives!

Self-care is a term that is bandied about like well-being and in many ways has become synonymous with coddling and risk aversion in the bubble wrapped world we live in, when in fact this is untrue. Self-care is not about being selfish or hiding from danger or avoiding risk, it is an essential component of maintaining mental and physical health. I can't believe that for most of my adult life I have always considered myself second, after first considering the well-being of others. I didn't truly appreciate the practical component of self-care until I became a volunteer firefighter. The safe person concept drilled home to us as firefighters, is the number one safety rule - your own safety is a priority. If you aren't safe how can you help or support or indeed be of any use to anyone else? In a crisi situation three key questions are always considered;

  • how do we minimise risk to others?

  • how do we reduce risk to others?

  • how do we eliminate risk to others?

The Hollywood movie clip we've all seen, where firefighters run into a flaming inferno is simply that - a Hollywood movie clip! Firefighters do not walk or run into burning buildings alone - ever. Their officer in charge makes a risk assessment - is it adding to the problem by sending someone into the building - are we endangering more lives? Based on his judgement of the situation the decision to enter is made; and even then, if firefighters are at all concerned, they have the right to say they don't feel safe. It is all about risk management and avoiding adding another casualty, or compounding the risk to others. The idea that someone else's life matters more than your own is a romantic notion that has come to signify a sense of caring and love and ultimate sacrifice. In reality we are almost incapable of being truly caring and loving if we don't love ourselves first.

Recently I have seen people metaphorically walking into burning buildings in an attempt to do the right thing for others; they are attempting to save their livelihoods and their families and in the process their physical and mental health is suffering. We are seeing the results of poor self-care due to unprecedented pressure and mounting stress factors that are overwhelming people. Many of these people would normally have robust resilience, however the intensity (size or relative amount) and the duration of these stress factors have eaten away at this resilience over time.

We know from our recent experiences of lockdown that short term we are able to cope but once the duration becomes unknown and the intensity of the restrictions becomes greater, we begin to struggle and weaken. In main stream training and coaching, duration and intensity are often overlooked when considering goal setting or change programmes. People set lofty goals and long term outcomes and then beat themselves up because they fail to reach their target. Short, sharp sustained effort or targeted achievements are doable - if duration and intensity are carefully considered.

If we want to help ourselves or others with targeted self-care strategies we need to start small - start with low intensity and short duration actions. I could get distracted right now and add in response effort but I am sure I have talked about this before! So what do you do if you want to begin tackling self-care in your life or help someone close to you? Self-care can be as basic or as advanced as you like - my suggestion is if you are struggling right now with pressures and stress, keep it incredibly simple and doable and programme it into your day starting with 5 minutes of doing nothing but sitting with yourself over a coffee or tea? Programming it into your day leads to a feeling of success and your activities can expand when you are ready.

Sample Self-care Instructions

  1. grab a pice of paper and a pen

  2. brainstorm a short list of things that bring you joy

  3. choose the easiest activity to do now

  4. set a time frame for that activity that is doable

  5. do it!

  6. record on your calendar or in a diary that you did it

  7. repeat daily!

Take your list of activities that bring you joy, and prepare materials or equipment as you go so that the more challenging activities become doable - for example if you had reading and drawing as activities, obviously you need materials! Often we don't do self care activities because we simply don't have access to the materials, and we say things like one day...!

Maybe you feel this is all too simplistic, and meanwhile your life is crumbling around you. Indeed there is no easy way out and it remains true, that the only way to progress is to get into a better state of "being". It may seem counter intuitive to stop when things are overwhelming you, however I always challenge myself by saying how are things working out so far by NOT changing? As we know things didn't work out too well for Hamlet; he let someone else's desire and beliefs influence his true self. You come first - always - and by prioritising yourself you will become more loving, more capable, and more resilient - and ultimately be in the perfect position to be of service to others.

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